Mathews’ ‘hail Mary pass’ Rescues 8 Haitian childrenPublished 10:18am Friday, February 26, 2010
By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News
Too bad the “Idaho 10″ didn’t phone Fred(s).
And the federal government didn’t appear broken when a tenacious team led by Dr. Fred L. Mathews set about to remove children from Haiti for medical treatment in Massachusetts.
They might have picked a better time than Super Bowl weekend when blizzards paralyzed Washington, D.C., but they didn’t let such obstacles defeat them.
The snowstorm seemed to pause long enough Feb. 10 for the plane to avoid being grounded.
“That was divine guidance, I think,” Mathews said.
Mathews burnished his longstanding reputation for political prowess by hashing through a laundry list of helpers and hinderers that included the White House, the State Department, U.S. Customs, Border Patrol, Immigration, Homeland Security, Massachusetts, the government of Haiti, U.S. military in Haiti and the Shriners.
“Oh my,” shuddered congressional staffer Al Pscholka when he received a Saturday afternoon call. “We’ve got missionaries being arrested in Haiti, a snowstorm in D.C., the Super Bowl is tomorrow.”
You can imagine a State Department official’s astonishment when presented questions like why is a guy calling from his house in Michigan about getting kids to Massachusetts using a doctor who has documents in New York? And why does a Michigan congressman care?
This story starts at Dowagiac’s ice festival on Saturday, Feb. 6.
Mathews and sculptor Tuck Langland, here from Indiana to judge the ice carvings, stood by Beckwith Park downtown.
While waiting for the timed carving to elapse so he could begin his task, Langland and the retired optometrist crossed Front Street to Wood Fire, which is where the call came from Dr. James Wierman.
Wierman, one of Dowagiac Rotary Club’s three non-member Paul Harris Fellows for community service, has been a medical missionary in Haiti for 40 years. In March he planned to lead another team from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church to the impoverished Caribbean nation.
“The earthquake stopped all that,” Wierman apprised Rotarians Thursday noon at Elks Lodge 889. The Dowagiac team’s destination was “flattened” Jan. 12 by the 7.0-magnitude quake.
In the meantime, Jim and his doctor daughter, Meredith, received an opportunity to travel with physicians from South Bend Orthopedic at a hospital out of the danger zone in northern Haiti.
“They helicoptered casualties up there,” he recounted, “expanding their hospital from 57 beds to 500 on cots in army tents. When we were there, they were trying to get out some kids, a couple with 60-percent burns, and the others with fractures. She had a pediatrician there with her to screen the kids. I had a little time to talk with her each evening sitting on the porch. Everything was arranged and going fine. Then on Saturday, the 6th, about 12:30 or 1 in the afternoon, she came over and said, ‘Does anybody have any pull? We’re running into all kinds of obstructions. It’s going to be impossible to get these kids out.’ Nobody said anything.’
“I looked at Meredith and she kind of smiled. I think she knew what I was thinking.”
Reaching Mathews at Wood Fire, “I told him of our predicament and what was happening. He had questions, so I turned the phone over to the lady working on this and she talked with Fred. After that, I have no idea what happened – except for it worked,” Dr. Wierman said.
Mathews came to the podium to pick up the narrative with an exclamation he’s been itching to use in a speech: “The plane is airborne!”
“That was an e-mail I got at 2:49 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 10, after four intensive days and nights” and more than 200 other electronic messages.
“I passed this information on to all my team members and others, like Denise, who were closely following this because her husband and daughter were down there as physicians. They were the sweetest words I’ve heard in years. I don’t remember ever hearing any words that gave me greater relief or joy.”
Mathews, chairman of the Southwestern Michigan College Board of Trustees, which had Hilda Alcindor, a Haitian nursing school dean, speak at commencement last May, called the rescue “the most complicated, stressful – and rewarding – project I’ve been involved in for many, many years. When Jim called my cell phone I was with my wife (Thelda) and Tuck and I wondered why in the world he would be calling from Haiti.
“This problem was in my element. I couldn’t be there with Jim, but this was something I thought I could do. These kids were all in danger of losing limbs or their lives. Failure was not an option and they had to get out by Wednesday. It takes a lot of work to get a plane permitted to land there, then you can stay so long and you’ve got to get out. It was held up by a bureaucratic problem. The U.S. government had said before these kids could come in, they had to be transferred to the comfort ship about 12 hours away by ambulance and get evaluated. They had already been evaluated by a U.S.-certified pediatrician. It was absolute insanity.”
Mathews “knows how to get things done, and that is to get good people around you who are smarter. My job was to quarterback. I knew who to throw the ball to. Our team was Al Pscholka (accompanied by his wife, Suzanne, who was in Dowagiac for a Michigan Blood drive), Fred Upton’s chief guy in this region. First I called (Rep. and state Senate candidate) John Proos and said, ‘I need to talk to Al right away. It’s a life-or-death situation.’ ”
Mathews didn’t know he had reached Proos in Las Vegas over Super Bowl weekend.
Mathews’ teammates also consisted of: Kim Lucey, a nurse working with Dr. Wierman on the ground in Haiti; DeGuerre, Blackburn, Ph.D., from New York, a visa specialist with 25 years experience; Elaine Charest, director of rehab services at Shriners Hospital for Children in Springfield, Mass.; and Sasha Gainullin, a former travel agent.
“Al was my number-one receiver, Mathews continued the football analogy, ironically, because he’s not a rabid sports fan by a long shot.
“He never fumbled the ball, he always took it down the field and we eventually got it over the goal line.”
Pscholka dispatched Mathews an e-mail Sunday afternoon that “we’ve got the wheels moving at State.”
“We went into Monday feeling real good,” Mathews recalled, “until we got another list of conditions from the government that we had to do. We knew we could do them. They were medical records, certification from the hospital that it would take them and it was not going to cost the United States government anything. A whole list of things, plus a letter from the governor of Massachusetts,” Deval Patrick.
“We thought that would be duck soup,” but Patrick seemed “spooked” by potential political fallout like Idaho in the event the mission failed against odds like those arrayed against the New Orleans Saints in Florida.
“Imagine a governor saying he won’t do this when you can’t get them out of Haiti unless you give a specific hospital and have the documents from a hospital saying you’re going to take them, so Al went to work. But long story short, we never did get the governor’s letter.”
But they did get Congressman John Oliver of the district where the Shriner hospital is located, Congressman Upton and a U.S. senator of some renown, John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee for president.
“We also had the weather to contend with,” Mathews said, “the worst storm to hit the east in a long time” could ground the plane.
“All the congressional and government offices were closed. Then we had the problem of the Idaho 10 who went down there and got arrested. That poisoned the whole atmosphere. Contacts Dr. Blackburn had for years dried up. They wouldn’t even return her phone calls.”
He jumps ahead to Wednesday morning when the plane was supposed to leave because this is a Rotary program and he hacked his way through so many hurdles “there is only time to hit the highlights. We could probably make a two-hour movie about this.”
Mathews phoned Kim in Haiti to update her of the many political IOUs he called in to get to this point.
“Do you see any problems there whatsoever?” he asked.
Lucey assures Mathews she’s “98 percent sure everything’s fine.”
But an hour later she’s back on the line with a “panicked call” because the UN will not allow the use of ambulances for transport to the airport unless the prime minister signs off.
“They were all nervous about this, too,” Mathews said. “Again, I e-mail Al about bringing pressure on the United Nations. After four days, we did not have the problem solved until the kids were actually on the plane. That final day, when we finally got the United Nations straightened out, an e-mail from the pilot of the plane (stated) ‘Crew reports kids on their way to the airport. Due in about 15 minutes.’ Next one: ‘Kids did not make it to the airport, as crew now reports United Nations not sure when kids are moving. Then: The issues for the movement not happening are reported to be with the United Nations and the Haitian government because some paperwork was not on file between those two agencies.’ Two minutes later: ‘Aircraft now reports they have been told all kids enroute again. Doctors will confirm as soon as possible.’ Next one: ‘Just hung up with crew. Air crew reports that the kids are on board. Paperwork issues are being addressed before they can depart.’ Finally: ‘The plane is airborne!’ Then, I got an e-mail and a call when the plane landed and another from Kim, who came with the kids on the plane, that they were in an ambulance convoy to the hospital. About 10:10 that evening I got one from Elaine at the hospital.”
Charest wrote: “All the kids are safe, sound, had dinner, are in their rooms and have no intention of turning off the TVs. Planning to take all of them to the OR (Feb. 11).”
“That was when we could finally relax,” Mathews said.
Feb. 18 he received a photograph of four of the children, who had never experienced snow, outside in hospital beds.
“They were getting a little frisky,” he said, “but they’re still in bed, so the hospital bundled up four of them and let them throw a few snowballs” (two of the six in Springfield were too frail; two others were at a Boston burn center, where weekly skin grafts will keep them for some time).
“I could not have done it without Fred Upton allowing Al to commit his full time to this for four days – and it wasn’t four days, it was four 24-hour periods, 24/7. I’ll always be grateful to Al.”
Pscholka, who like Proos before him is seeking a state House seat, said it was “an honor to work with two pillars of this community in Dr. Wierman and Dr. Mathews. I had read a story about Dr. Wierman and his four decades as a missionary that week in the Kalamazoo Gazette.
“It was 3:30 on Saturday of Super Bowl weekend and that snowstorm that paralyzed the capital. They had 20 inches of snow. John called me and said Dr. Mathews would be calling because he wanted a waiver to get a plane to take kids out of Haiti.”
“Really?” Pscholka mustered a one-word reply.
“I’ve never said this to Dr. Mathews until today, but since he likes to use a football analogy, he was the quarterback and I was the receiver. Dr. Mathews, that was a hail Mary. Sometimes hail Marys are completed, and when they are, you win.”
As he took in the tragic tale of an octet of broken-limbed, burned children, including one with a spinal injury, Pscholka said it “touched me” on different levels despite the obvious obstacles.
Christian (“we were obligated to help”). A husband. A father.
At his house, it isn’t What Would Jesus Do? it’s What Would Angela Do?
A six-year congressional staffer (“I knew my boss would want me to roll up my sleeves, do whatever I could do and get the job done”).
Rotarian (“we pledge service to humanity. This thing really touched my soul. I felt the passion in Fred’s voice”).
“My daughter graduated in social work,” he said. “She’s taken several trips to Guatemala and other places.”
Pscholka immediately phoned nurse Kim Lucey on the ground in Haiti.
“I had to establish communication if we needed documents,” he said.
“I knew this would be a huge visa, immigration, State Department issue. It’s detailed, difficult work. We have one person on staff who does it. Dr. Blackburn in New York, she had all the paperwork and was working on the documentation, so this was starting to come together.”
Upton “was easy to find,” as Cass County’s congressman was snowbound at his Virginia home.
“We put together a quick conference call with our chief of staff and one of our legislative people to work every angle we could think of. We started with the State Department and called the White House legislative liaison. Fred called one of his colleagues,” Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the majority whip who had been named as a liaison to the Haitian task force and Jon Stewart’s guest Thursday night on “The Daily Show.”
“Then Fred got us all back together,” Pscholka said. “The way we work in our office is Fred assigns a lead staff person, then you’re held accountable to do this. I’m thinking, ‘This is a pretty tall task. I made some initial contacts,’ but I figured he’d give it to the chief of staff. But he didn’t. He gave it to me. He could tell by the passion in my voice, like the passion in Fred’s (Mathews) voice that we had to get this done and see if we could save eight lives. That’s what it really came down to. I guess there is a higher power because I found someone in the State Department on a Saturday night, though I think he’d been snowed in there.”
That would be Andy McDermott, who peppered Pscholka with questions. “My response was I have a constituent, Dr. Wierman, from Dowagiac, Mich., who is on the ground. I have another, Dr. Mathews, who contacted us. All eight of those kids are our constituents. They don’t have to live in the 6th District of Michigan. We worked with Andrew through Saturday. All of these kids had relatives or parents. We did get their permission to do this.
“We found a designation on Sunday. We came up with ‘humanitarian parolee,’ which allows them to be treated and rehabbed in the United States, then they have to return. Fred’s right. On Sunday, we pretty much had this coming together, which I remember because I missed the first Colts touchdown. When I got to the office Monday morning, Andrew said, ‘I got approval to move those kids.’ I certainly did not expect what happened on Wednesday.”
Getting halted in their tracks by the UN “was the only time through the whole process I can say I was angry.”
Al is a guy who “leads with my chin. I’m more interested in getting things done than the process. I’ll come back and do the process later after things get to the final result. But this was one case we did follow the process. We had all the paperwork done and everything in place to get the kids out of there and save eight lives. I called Andrew one more time and said, ‘I’m going to be honest with you. I don’t have any contacts at the United Nations. We have done all this work together and all these people are counting on us. I can’t believe we can’t get past a stinking checkpoint in Haiti.’ ”
McDermott replied, “We’re the State Department. We do have contacts with United Nations.”
“A few minutes later the kids cleared,” Pscholka said. “I want to thank everybody involved. Fred was the quarterback. Jim was on the ground and doing things for decades. I was honored just to be a small piece of this puzzle to save eight lives. It is something I will never forget for the rest of my life. We’ve done a lot of good work in the congressional office, but nothing quite like this. I’m glad my boss, Fred Upton, had confidence in me to get the job done.”